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Benjamin Franklin Has A Teachable Moment With Cotton Mather

When Benjamin Franklin first returned to Boston in 1724 after a year in Philadelphia, he went to visit Cotton Mather.

What is remarkable about the visit was that Franklin, the libertine and rebel, had mocked the Puritan clergyman as a 16-year-old anonymous writer for his brother James’s newspaper, The New England Courant.

Benjamin Franklin

Benjamin Franklin

The story of how Franklin got published in the Courant is well known. Apprenticed to his brother, he feared James wouldn’t print his writing in the newspaper. So he wrote an essay in disguised handwriting under the nom de plume Silence Dogood. The name was probably an allusion to two of Mather’s books, Essays to Do Good and Silentiarius: A Brief Essay on the Holy Silence and Godly Patience, that Sad Things are to be Entertained withal.

Maybe he was suggesting Mather should be silent.

Benjamin Franklin slipped the first essay under the door of his brother’s printing shop at night. The essay was well received by James’ customers and literary friends, who called themselves ‘The Couranteers.’ Cotton Mather , the subject of the Courant's barbs, called them ‘The Hell-Fire Club.

The 16-year-old wrote 13 more essays in the persona of Silence Dogood, ostensibly a middle-aged minister’s widow. When she suggested she didn’t like being single, several men wrote in with marriage offers.

In the essays, young Benjamin Franklin mocked the Puritan establishment. Harvard was a special target in Essay Four.

I reflected in my Mind on the extream Folly of those Parents, who, blind to their Childrens Dulness, and insensible of the Solidity of their Skulls, because they think their Purses can afford it, will needs send them to the Temple of Learning, where, for want of a suitable Genius, they learn little more than how to carry themselves handsomely, and enter a Room genteely, (which might as well be acquir’d at a Dancing-School,) and from whence they return, after Abundance of Trouble and Charge, as great Blockheads as ever, only more proud and self-conceited.

As Silence, he mocked religious hypocrisy in Essay Nine. Silence asked herself which was worse, hypocritical pretenders to religion or the openly profane? She concluded the hypocrite is more dangerous --  especially if he has a government post.

The first artifice of a State Hypocrite is, by a few savoury Expressions which cost him Nothing, to betray the best Men in his Country into an Opinion of his Goodness; and if the Country wherein he lives is noted for the Purity of Religion, he the more easily gains his End.

'The public hypocrite every day deceives his betters,' she wrote, 'and makes them the Ignorant Trumpeters of his supposed Godliness.' They take him for a saint, without considering they are ‘the Instrument of Publick Mischief our of Conscience, and ruin their country for God’s sake.'

Cotton Mather

Cotton Mather

Mather might well have taken umbrage at Franklin’s attack on the Puritan ruling class. He was a big part of it. Mather wielded influence as pastor of the North Church, as a prolific writer and as a political leader. In 1689 he had led a revolt against the governor of the short-lived Dominion of New England, Edmund Andros.

Some historians believe the essay was aimed directly at Cotton and his father Increase Mather, both of whom were involved with the Salem witch trials. Others say it could have been Samuel Sewell, another Salem witch trial judge. Still others think the essay was aimed at Joseph Dudley, a former governor of Massachusetts. Or it could have been all of them.

When Benjamin Franklin visited him at his house, the old minister could not have forgotten the Courant’s attacks on him, especially over the inoculation controversy. During a smallpox epidemic ravaging Boston, Mather advocated inoculation against the disease, something he learned from his African slave. The Courant savaged Mather for his evil plot to spread smallpox, not prevent it.

And yet Franklin respected the Mathers. He read Essays to Do Good when he was 11, which, he said, had influenced him profoundly. He had also gone to hear both Increase and Cotton preach.

Franklin recounted the visit in a letter to his son, Samuel Mather. Cotton Mather said nothing about James’ attack. Both men loved books, and they visited in Mather’s library. As they were leaving, Mather suddenly said, “Stoop! Stoop!”

Franklin didn’t understand and hit his head on the low beam. Mather, who never missed a chance to give instruction, said, "You are young, and have the world before you; stoop as you go through it, and you will miss many hard thumps."

Franklin wrote to his son, "I often think of it when I see pride mortified, and misfortunes brought upon people by their carrying their heads too high."

 

22 comments

  1. Molly Landrigan

    Interesting article. I learned things I never knew about Franklin. Is it true he was a womanizer?

  2. Robert Mooney

    …and his mother was born on Nantucket!

  3. Dana McPhee

    Franklin was one of the most respected scientists in the world during his life, while I feel Cotton Mather was chiefly responsible for the Salem Witch trials – if he hadn’t ‘observed’ the girls at the Parris house in Salem village, and concluded they were bewitched, the trials never would have happened…

  4. What part of Franklin’s essay #4 above, lampooning Harvard, was aimed at the Puritan establishment? Didn’t Franklin’s father remove him from school at 10 years old, and thus halt his track towards Harvard? And by the age of 16, when Franklin by the dint of his industriousness, had already digested such a quantity of books, (some from Mather’s library); Wasn’t he actually comparing himself to the spoiled rich and intellectually dull youth attending Harvard?

    Is the more nuanced lesson from this essay, from this early age Franklin had a hunger to learn, to work hard, to strive; and that this was the first of many essays in which he criticizes those who are dependent, complacent, dull, immoral, lazy, and corrupt?

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